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It’s the Pizz

There are three techniques where real world sounds and possibilities are easily misrepresented in the sampled world. They are In touch with, Tremolo, and Pizzicato.

Pizzicato is the technique where the player plucks the string with their finger. The loudest pizzicato is really only equivalent to a mezzo forte with the bow. Many a person has done a mockup with forte pizz balanced against arco strings and brass, and when we get to the studio they wonder why it sounds so different. The sound of a real section playing pizzicato often has a looseness in the timing, not at all like the ‘perfect take’ samples. I also think some of the libraries have been compressed, as there is a lot more sustain to their sound than there is in real life.

Each instrument in the string family has a different sound when it comes to playing pizz, and depending on the tessitura and string involved can achieve a different range of sounds as well. The general rule is that the longer and thicker the string is, the louder and fuller the sound will be. The bass has the most presence and produces a thick tone with quite a bit of sustain. The violin produces only a little sustain in the low register and none from the middle up. It is also worth noting that the change in tone is consistent from violin through viola through to the cello; however, the switch to bass is a big change and care needs to be taken when trying to continue lines from the cello to the bass. When getting into the higher register, pizzicato gets very thin sounding.

highest pizzThis is really obvious on the violin where you are dealing with a very short, thin, high-tension string. This C is the highest decent sounding pizz note on the violin. You can go higher, but due to the very short length and tension of the string it gets harder to produce a quality sound. The tone gets progressively thinner.

Besides allowing composers to get used to louder-than-possible pizzicato, samples have also led to composers writing music with pizzicato passages that are too fast. Players use one finger to play pizzicato; the rest are holding the bow. In order to make a good full sound players need time to get the finger back into into position. So while a faster passage may be possible, it will sound a little softer and the timing may not be as together as it would be had the same passage been played arco. If time permits, you will often see the players put the bow down while they perform long pizzicato passages. This makes it more comfortable as the bow is not flailing around in the air and the other fingers can relax.

When going from arco to pizz and back, one must consider the physics of the action. In order to make a quick change, the bow needs to end on an up stroke so the hand is close to the string it needs to pluck. The opposite applies when going back to arco from pizz. Obviously, this may not always be musically ideal. It is impossible to play right from arco to pizz as there will always be a gap. The shorter that gap is, the harder the line will be to play and the greater the chance for error, most commonly the timing and tone will suffer. There is an alternative that can work if the pizz is quiet, and that is left hand pizz. This is a weaker sound and works best on a single isolated note or a descending line as it is performed by ‘pulling off’. It is only something that would be expected of a professional section and even then only if you really need it.

Snap [Bartok] Pizz
This is when the player hooks the finger under the string, pulls it up, and lets it snap back and hit the finger board — as opposed to a normal pizz where the string is pulled across, not up. This produces a loud sound with a lot of percussion and not a lot of pitch. It is important to note that on the violin it is only possible to do a proper snap on the G and D strings, and it works best in first position. The viola is similar; it is possible on the C and G strings, however due to the very lose tension on the C string, they can snap further up than first position. As for the upper strings, the tension on both instruments does not allow for the string to be pulled far enough to snap back properly. As the finger must completely hook under the string to perform the snap, there needs to be even more space between notes than with a normal pizzicato. As the sound is quite jarring, I recommend going easy on its use. The violin and viola have similar power with snap pizz, however there is a large jump in volume when you get to the cello and bass due to the much longer strings, slacker tension and longer finger boards. One way to deal with this is to have only a handful of low strings snap. The full sections can be a little overwhelming.

Multiple Stops
As with arco stops, the same technical and sonic issues apply. In solo works or chamber pieces, stops are not a problem, but with larger ensembles the sound can get messy. Of course, you may never hear it, as they will have ignored your indication to play a stop and divided it anyway.

On all string instruments it is possible to use the thumb and play a double stop at the same time, but triple and quadruple stops will be strummed. On the violin and and viola, it is only comfortable (while in the normal playing position) to strum in an upward (pitch) direction. This is due to the position of the instrument and the hand. However, the cello and bass can use the a finger or the thumb to strum so you can go in either direction. The stronger sound will be in the downward direction as that is the string the finger plucks. For balance purposes, keep in mind that the decay time on an open string is longer than on a fingered string.

Endre Granate Demonstrates Pizzicato

I like to write pizzicato passages in full beat durations. Even if the rest of the orchestra has an 8th note, I will round the pizz up to the beat and give them a quarter. For pizzicato on the larger instruments that sustain, it is important to indicate if they are to let it ring or not. Historically, performance practice has often taken care of this, but in new music the players have no idea what you are expecting. They will work it out after a few runs, but it is best to notate it. There are several ways of doing this. If it is just a single pizz, I use the ‘ring over’ articulation. If it is a whole passage I will mark it l.v. sempre. If you do not mark it, players will always listen and give the notes a satisfying length, but they will be short. Remember that in the upper strings, there is no sustain, so writing l.v. for mid to high violin parts is redundant and displays a lack of understanding. Even in the low register, it is not long enough to bother marking. If I want the notes very short, I add staccato dots for one or two notes, or mark it secco if it’s a passage.

It is common to have a line split half arco and half pizz. One could do a ‘stem up/stem down’ approach, or just mark it as what it is. Having checked with players, the easiest and preferred method is to just say ‘1/2 arco, 1/2 pizz.’


pizz Ex 1

  1. The notes will be a satisfying length. This will balance with the higher instruments that do not sustain.
  2. The notes will ring until the player must prepare for the next one. If the rest of the ensemble is sustaining, then the notes should ring.
  3. Will sound the same as 2. Personally, I avoid this notation as when I have done it, I have had questions on whether this is pizz or arco as they are so used to seeing pizz written as shorter notes.

pizz ex 2

  1. For a very short sound, mark it secco or use staccato dots.
  2. I always round up to the beat for pizz. Can’t say that there is anything technically wrong with this example, but Example 1 looks cleaner and unless you mark it secco, the players will not choke the notes.
  3. Preferred notation for half and half.

snap 2The snap pizz is defined with an articulation, a circle with a line extending upward. Most people mark it pizz as well, however I do not bother as the articulation says it all. Some people see the need to add the word ‘Bartok’ or ‘snap’ as well. Perhaps they are trying to show that they know what they are doing? No clarifying text is needed; the articulation means only one thing. Also, being an articulation, it does not carry and applies only to the note it is attached to.

pizz snap

  1. This is how most people would notate this passage and the technically correct way.
  2. This is how I would do it, and have done similarly many times. No need to clarify the snap, and no need to say div. Not only would the players divide anyway, but this example is impossible to play without dividing. As we have left the notation minimal, but clear, we do not need to say arco. And we definitely don’t need the most redundant marking in orchestration: ‘unis.’

And just for fun: I will leave it up to you to work out what is wrong with the next two examples.

Vln no go

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  1. Where can one hear how 1/2 arco and 1/2 pizz. sounds? Any YouTube links?

  2. 1 – Maybe use a minim/half note or a semibreve/whole note instead? (imagining it means “let it ring…” as in a plucked instrument or sustained percussion notation)
    2 – An octave below will sound better on the violin (or change the technique). Maybe if we use an semibreve/whole note, we will have the same result.

  3. What is it called when you want to stop sempre staccato, for a section?

  4. Bartok pizz CAN be used on the violin A string and viola D and A strings if:

    You use either wound or pure gut, as synthetic strings are too tense. 🙂

  5. Please add a comment on Bartók/snap pizz.: is it possible to use it with double stops?

    • Bartok pizz for doublestops: it is very awkward.and slow, but doable.

      But, you will just get an eneven and softer effect, since two strings will be unnaturly piched with less total strength, which is unevenly distributed due to the differing tensions of the strings. 🙂

  6. Hi Tim:

    Taking a crack at the two questions you raised at the end:

    1. If this is a tie, it is not tied to any other note and should be removed (there’s a ‘dangling tie’ removal plugin in Sibelius, there is probably something similar in Finale). It is it slur, meaning to indicate ‘laissez vibrer’, I would prefer writing “l.v.” as it is now seems to slur to a rest which makes no sense and it raises issues with the players as to what is meant.

    2. This Bartok pizzicato is pretty high up the e string of the violin, and it’s not going to sound very well; you’re asking them to molest their instrument with little effect to show for it. If you want something ‘high snappy’ it probably makes more sense to combine a bartok pizzicato on the lower strings with a regular pizzicato on the upper strings, or maybe just a regular staccato note, or maybe a xylophone note or something other non-sustaining.


  7. As usual, terrific content delivered with that wonderful Tim Davies sense of humour and fun. You’re a great teacher.


  8. […] Tremolo is a fast, and by default, unmeasured oscillation of the bow. Tremolo, like¬?harmonics, and pizzicato is a technique where the use of samples in composition has given composers a false sense of […]

  9. Just realized I published this by accident, I just fixed a few things and may be back for more!


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